Five people at a state-run home for the elderly in Havana died in a 24-hour period last week from what the home’s administrator said were normal causes but dissidents say was a lack of proper nutrition and clothes during a cold spell.
“We believe that they died from problems rather than normal diseases,” said Calixto R. Martinez, an independent Havana journalist who first wrote about the deaths in a report published by a Miami-based Web site, Cubanet.
Cuba’s public health system, once ranked among the best in Latin America, has been rapidly eroding since the Soviet Union collapsed and ended its massive subsidies to Havana, estimated at $4 billion to $6 billion per year.
At least 20 elderly inmates at Havana’s largest psychiatric hospital, allegedly malnourished and lacking warm clothing, died in one day in January 2010 when temperatures dropped to nearly 37 degrees.
Martinez said Arcadio Santamaría, director of the Chung Wah Home for the Elderly and dissidents Yoeldis Giménez and Yosvani Torres Zaldívar told him that the five people died between Tuesday, Jan. 21 and Wednesday, Jan. 22.
Santamaría initially told El Nuevo Herald in a brief chat that no one had died, then said there had been five “normal” deaths but that he would not comment further over the phone and invited the reporter to interview him in person at the home.
Martinez said Santamaría told him that government investigators determined the deaths “occurred because of natural causes and not from what people are saying,” and added that one died at the home and the others at hospitals where they were sent on Tuesday.
The journalist reported the dissidents told him that employees of the home had said the five died at the facility from malnutrition and cold. Havana last week reported lows of 50 degrees on the 21stand 59 on the 22nd.
Both the dissidents and home employees told him that State Security agents and other state officials turned up at the home Wednesday to investigate the case, Martinez added in a phone interview with El Nuevo Herald.
“If they had died from normal diseases in different places there would be no reason for State Security to be there,” he said. State Security investigators usually handle politically sensitive cases.
Cuba’s news media monopoly reported nothing on the 2010 deaths at the psychiatric hospital until the case became known abroad, and so far has published nothing on the Chung Wah deaths. The home was founded by the Chinese community and nationalized by the Castro government in the 1960s.
Martinez, who in 2012 also broke the news of Cuba’s first cholera outbreak in a century, wrote in his report that the two dissidents alerted him to the five deaths on Thursday but it took him time to confirm some of the details.
Santamaria told him Sunday that he and his staff take the best care of their patients and that the government provides all the supplies needed to guarantee the well-being of its elderly.
But another Cubanet report in December 2012, by independent journalist Reinaldo Cosano, described the Chung Wah home as “a Dantesque warehouse” for 250 patients where employees steal food, clothing, toothpaste and soap meant for the elderly.
Toilets stink, patients are bathed from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m. in both summer and winter and sometimes with cold water because the water heater breaks down, according to that report. Some of the patients suffered from mange, a skin disease most often seen in dogs, and only two nurses are on weekend duty.